It’s a pleasure to accompany No Other on its long, slow crawl towards the canon.
No Other is stupidly good. It’s the kind of album that’d be considered classic rock had the market been more in its favor. Think David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name or Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue; No Other surpasses those records in its sweep and ambition. It is trying to be a masterpiece, and it succeeds. Its vision didn’t translate to sales, and Gene Clark, the strongest writer of the Byrds’ early years, was shaken by its failure. By his death in 1991 it was still little-known, but with each subsequent reissue its reputation as one of the great rock albums of the ‘70s has only grown.
No Other has the feel of a perversely opulent classic from old Hollywood, something like The Earrings of Madam De… or The Scarlet Empress, draped in jewels and curtains and silk. It is heavy and all-encompassing, bearing down on us like a thick fur coat, and its lyrics seem designed to hit with maximum gravitas. Clark’s lyrical approach resembles that of fellow ex-Byrd Gram Parsons in its imagery made of biblical fire and rare minerals. The word “silver” is spoken in half the tracks and graces the title of two, and the vast “Some Misunderstanding” sings of rubies falling from the sky. When he spins a tale of a girl obsessed by magic on “From a Silver Phial,” he swipes aside clichés about hat tricks and cards to immerse us in the visual language of wizards’ lairs and arcane alchemy; it’s called “From a Silver Phial,” for fuck’s sake.
Clark does not sound young. He was 29 when he made the record, but his voice conjures the kind of wizened, rangy figure Sam Elliott might play. He puts a lot of physical effort into his vocal takes, soaring over the music in a high register that sounds like an icy wind in a storm. He uses country inflections, little yelps and yodels, and he takes a second to get from one note to another so his voice cracks a little (Marianne Faithfull uses the same trick beautifully on Broken English). The cowboy affectations impart a certain innocence, and we sense this is a man adrift in a sea of holy lessons and cosmic visions. Judee Sill used the same juxtaposition spectacularly on her two early-‘70s albums, and Kacey Musgraves carries its torch today.
Rock doesn’t get much more rococo than this while still being discernably rock. “No Other” grooves impressively on its downcast riff for a long time, and it sounds as much like a contemporary radio-rock hit as a séance. There are always stacks of harmonies, and on that title track a female voice rather haphazardly echoes the chorus, like a fellow worshipper partaking in the same prayer. The steel guitar on “The True One” is so compressed it sounds like a synth, and it’s echoed by an actual synth on the rugged, pastoral closer “Lady of the North” that sounds kind of like a steel guitar. The backing band is composed of a lot of crack L.A. session veterans, and the reliable, Gandalf-bearded bassist Leland Sklar would explore similar extremes of literate, baroque rock more than 30 years later on Joanna Newsom’s Ys.
This is the third time No Other has been reissued, following 1991 and 2003 repressings that made a tangible impact on some of the indie rockers who emerged that decade; members of Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, the Walkmen, Wye Oak and others formed the Gene Clark No Other Band in 2014 to perform songs from this album. It’s easy to see why indie rockers would be in love with this thing. “Silver Raven” employs the kind of faux-CSNY vocals Fleet Foxes would make their calling card, and Beach House might’ve modeled some of their early sound on the magnificent synth-and-guitar coda of “Some Misunderstanding.” That song in particular has aged beautifully, building as it does to the kind of massive, icy sweep fans of post-rock and shoegaze crave. For sheer grandeur, it rivals anything on All Things Must Pass.
What this reissue—courtesy of 4AD, which fosters many of Clark’s admirers—brings to the table is an impressive set of outtakes and alternate versions. You could probably cobble together an improved No Other or at least a personal fave out of the hours of bonus material. An alternate version of “Silver Raven” is superior, trading its slightly hacky acoustic plod for dark funk. But strip away the devastating gospel choirs from the chorus of “Life’s Greatest Fool” and the song is a shadow of the original. “Train Leaves Here This Morning” was left off the album but wouldn’t have fit; it’s too specific, too domestic to be of a piece with the expansive vision. What the outtakes make clear is how creatively and easily Clark made this music at the time. It’s a shame Clark never saw his vision finally acknowledged en masse, but it’s a pleasure to accompany No Other on its long, slow crawl towards the canon.